David Bowie at the V&A

In 2012 four iconic David Bowie costumes chosen for the V&A Bowie exhibition were conserved by ZTC. The exhibition went on to be one of the museums most successful shows and toured overseas. My favourite was the incredible suit that Bowie wore during “The Man Who Sold the World” tour which was based on the Sonia Delaunay design for 1920’s Dadaist artist Tristan Tzara to wear in the play Le Cour a Gaz (The Gas Heart). The sculptural costume mimicked a tuxedo but was in fact a solid black PVC corset shaped jacket with out-sized bow tie and exaggerated black and white striped ‘trousers’ – in fact an incredibly tight at the ankle hobble skirt. Bowie had to be lifted into position on the stage as walking was impossible. Designed by Bowie and Mark Ravitz of Brooks-Van Horn Costume Company, Bowie’s instructions written on the original sketch for the costume say, “Access into and out of to be easy. (back-door/gate?)”

The main treatment involved the black and white skirt which had been lined for shape emphasis with polyurethane foam. This was now disintegrating – the deterioration process had resulted in the foam breaking down into large chunks as well as extensive powdering. The foam was held in place inside the skirt behind a cotton lining with integral stiffening strips. The conservation of some modern materials can be very problematic; in this case the condition of the foam was so poor that removal and replacement was the only pragmatic solution.

After documenting the foam it was removed by simply easing it off the original stitching which was retained as evidence on the costume. The remains of the foam was retained and stored separately. After a thorough surface clean using vacuum suction a pattern was taken of the hobble shaped skirt. The foam was replaced with conservation grade polyester wadding layered with polyester needle felt to mimic the shape and function of the original padding. Polyester ages very well. A final layer of soft calico lining was added and the whole thing was stitched inside the skirt securing it to the facings inside. The shape of the skirt was checked on a mannequin and compared with images of Bowie in the costume. Once we were content that the original shape had not been compromised, Nylon Rigilene stiffening strips were placed inside the skirt in the same position as the original foam backer rods to provide support for the padded shape in the appropriate places. The iconic costume was then able to be more easily handled and mounted by the fabulous V&A Conservation mounting team.